How Bloggers Can Fix a Manual Penalty Caused by Compensated Content & Reviews
This past weekend Google sent out a round of manual penalty notices citing “unnatural outbound links” – later confirmed to be targeting sites publishing compensated content and reviews where the blogger is linking out to the brand or site that compensated them. If your site received the notice, you'll find some advice for fixing your site and getting the manual penalty removed below.
If you haven't been hit with this penalty, but review products or experiences on your blog (even if you use nofollows), I'd still highly recommend reading this post. Not receiving the notice this round doesn't necessarily mean your site is completely in the clear.
If you don't know what a manual penalty is (also referred to as manual actions), you can find more information on what manual penalties are here. This post will focus solely on how you can fix the manual penalty related to compensated content and reviews.
These penalties were handed out less than a week ago, so we can probably surmise that no one has had the penalty lifted as of the day this post was published. I am not claiming to have already had this specific penalty lifted, and I wanted to be clear that my post is meant to help people recover from this manual penalty with the advice in it being based on my:
- Extensive experience with manual penalties (and successfully getting them removed)
- Understanding of the Google guidelines and the types of practices they're targeting with them
- Experience and understanding of bloggers and how they (we) make money
The below is simply the process I would follow if my sites – or a client site – received this manual action notice. I decided to write this post after finding my Facebook inbox lighting up with messages from various blogger friends.
How to find out if you were hit with this manual action
The good news is that finding out if your site was hit with a manual penalty is simple. Log into your Google Search Console account and navigate to the main dashboard for your site. In the left sidebar, click on Search Traffic and then click on Manual Actions.
If you see a message that says “No manual webspam actions found.” then you're in the clear this round. If you see a message stating “Unnatural outbound links from [http://yourdomain.com/] violate Google Webmaster Guidelines.” then you've been hit with the manual action.
If you find that you've had the above manual action placed on your site, my first piece of advice is to breathe and stay calm. Since this penalty is all about links coming from your site, fixing it – and having the manual penalty lifted – is within your control.
To be relieved of this manual penalty – and to avoid being hit again in the future (or incurring it at all for those who weren't hit in this first round) you'll need to follow a few basic steps:
- Find out what is considered compensated content (it probably includes more than you think)
- Learn and follow the (newly expanded) rules for links within sponsored content
- Clean up the current links violating those rules
- Openly disclose compensated content and links to readers
- Submit a reconsideration request to Google
- Cross your fingers and wait for the penalty to be removed
#1 – What constitutes compensated content or a compensated review
You'll note that I've used the phrase compensated content and reviews and not paid content and reviews. Money is an obvious form of compensation, so any content or review you're paid cash to write obviously counts as compensated content. But there are other forms of compensation surrounding content and product reviews. Compensation can also include:
- Being given a free product in return for writing a review of the product
- Being given a free product to give away to your readers in a contest
- Being given a free experience in return for writing a review of the experience (hotel stays, amusement park tickets, access to an exclusive event, etc.)
- Being paid or compensated with free product to develop and publish content that uses a specific product or service (creating recipes using a specific product, developing a tutorial on how to apply makeup by a specific beauty brand, creating fashionable outfits using a specific clothing brand, etc.)
- Writing about products featured in a Swag Bag from a conference or event that you received for free
- Recipe link ups or other content sharing link carousels that aren't using a nofollow attribute (you're only linking to all those recipes because they're linking to yours = compensation by exposure)
- Linking to affiliate programs on the base merchant's domain without a nofollow
- Use of a free plugin that links back to the plugin creator's website without a nofollow (the EasyRecipe plugin is a common example of one used that includes a link to the plugin's website featuring the paid version of the product in your code that is direct and doesn't use a nofollow)
- Links to advertisers in your sidebar, etc. that link to the advertiser without using a nofollow link
I'm sure there are more, but those are the significant forms of compensation I see used en masse.
#2 – The rules for linking out in compensated content have been expanded
Google has long been telling both bloggers and brands to nofollow links to the merchant sponsoring any form of compensated content – warning of the potential of incurring penalties on both sides of that equation. However, the SEO community can be crafty.
Over the last few years, a workaround was devised and employed by many SEO teams and companies. While they accepted that the compensated content couldn't link back to the core website they were promoting, they began requesting that bloggers link out to Amazon product listings, favorable review pages on other sites, social media profiles and even to random merchants selling their products.
The concept was that the compensating site stayed within Google's guidelines, but that they still achieved improved search engine rankings for sites selling or promoting their products, services or website. But Google has now included these side-stepping links as links that have to be nofollowed in compensated content:
“This includes links to the product itself, any sales pages (such as on Amazon), affiliate links, social media profiles, etc. that are associated with that post.” – Google's John Mueller
So even if you've been following the rules of nofollowing links to the core sites who compensated you for content, the rules have expanded – and you need to make sure your site is in compliance with those added rules if you want to avoid a future penalty.
#3 – Cleaning up your unnatural outbound links
You will need to nofollow any links directly to the merchant – or any other side-stepping links associated with the merchant – within any post you were compensated for creating. You'll also need to add a nofollow attribute to any site features generating links based on compensation.
#3.A – Adding a Nofollow attribute to links within compensated content
If you write your posts in Text mode, then you'd simply alter the link code to use the nofollow attribute.
An example of link code without a nofollow:
An example of link code with a nofollow:
<a href="https://sugarrae.com" rel="nofollow">Sugarrae</a>
If you write your posts using the Visual editor, then you can use the (free) Title and Nofollow for Links plugin. You can find a guide for installing and using this plugin here. The plugin will allow you to check a box to add a nofollow attribute to a link, without requiring you to edit the link code. However, it's important to note that if you ever disable the plugin, any nofollow attributes added to links using it will be removed.
Both options above mean you'll have to go through all of your posts one by one to nofollow any offending links – which includes the side-step style links mentioned in section two above.
A more drastic option is to nofollow all external links on your blog using the External Links plugin. Keep in mind though that using this option means any non-compensated links on your site linking out to fellow bloggers will be stripped of any SEO value.
There's no doubt it's a quicker option, but it can also affect the search rankings of others and messes with the natural ecosystem of the web. Personally, I'd only nofollow what actually needs to be nofollowed. I know I'd want other bloggers with legitimate links to my site – that help Google know my site is awesome – to do the same.
#3.B – Add a Nofollow attribute to plugin credit links
If a plugin is adding a credit link to your site that doesn't contain a nofollow attribute, then it is violating Google's guidelines. You have three basic options to fix this issue.
#3.B.1 – Upgrade to the paid version of the plugin to remove the credit link
Most free plugins with a paid version will allow you to remove the credit links once you've upgraded to the paid version. I will always choose to go with this option when available because I'd rather not be linking out to an unrelated website – with or without a nofollow.
#3.B.2 – Edit the plugin to add a nofollow to the credit link
If you don't want to upgrade (or if upgrading won't remove the credit link), then you'll want to edit the plugin to contain a nofollow attribute on the credit link. Beware of removing it entirely though, as it may be required by the plugin creator in exchange for free use of the plugin. Unfortunately, I can't tell you how to edit every single plugin on the planet to add a nofollow attribute to any credit links contained within it. They're found in different locations in the plugin source code, and some plugins make it harder than others to edit the credit links.
#3.B.3 – Remove (or replace) the plugin entirely
Removing the plugin would be the last resort for most blog owners, especially if the plugin powers a core feature of their site. However, this is the option you're left with if you can't implement one of the two options above (unless you can convince the plugin owner to make the credit link for their plugin Google compliant).
#3.C – Add a Nofollow attribute to affiliate links & standard paid ads
This step includes adding a nofollow to all affiliate links on your site – even those clearly labeled as ads in your sidebars. You'll want to do the same for any links to advertisers on your site, including text links and banner ads both within content and within your site design as well.
#3.D – Ensure Link Ups contain a Nofollow attribute
If you participate in any kind of Link Up or cross promotion campaigns (where you link out to other bloggers, and they link out to you as part of a group promotion), you'll want to ensure your Link Ups are linking to the sites featured within it using a nofollow attribute on each link. If you're unsure of how to make this happen, you'll need to stop participating in the Link Ups and remove any past Link Ups you've featured on your site.
#3.E – Add a Nofollow attribute to links that benefit guest authors
Ensure any links within guest posts contain a Nofollow attribute on the links to the author's site (and any side-step links they'd benefit from as listed in section two above). While this isn't directly related to the manual penalty tied to compensated content, now that you've been hit with a manual action a human will be reviewing your site to ensure compliance with Google's rules – all of them – before lifting the manual penalty. Google has required that all links that benefit the author within guest posts be nofollowed for several years now. So be sure to clean those links up if you haven't already before you submit your reconsideration request to Google.
#4 – Openly disclose compensated content and links to your readers
While nofollowing compensated links is technically enough to stay within Google's good graces, it's not enough to satisfy the FTC guidelines surrounding sponsored product endorsements. While you're dealing with disclosing compensated links to Google, I'd also recommend you disclose the compensation to your readers as well – or you could end up as a defendant in a lawsuit for failure to disclose.
Additionally, while failing to disclose compensated content to your readers is not a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines, Google has repeated ad nauseam over the years that they prefer to see compensated content disclosed as such to readers.
#5 – Submit a reconsideration request to Google
Before you craft and submit your reconsideration request, let me make two things perfectly clear:
Do not attempt to bullshit Google and do not waste their time.
You should not submit a reconsideration request to Google until you have gone through your site with a fine-tooth comb and have cleaned up every link on your site that is violating their guidelines. You are not going to be able to hide anything from them or squeak through in doing half-assed clean up of your site – and in my opinion, you're only going to piss them off if you try.
I tend to think of it this way – When I tell my kid to clean their room, I expect them to clean their room. When they tell me they're done, and I see they've done a half-assed job, I get annoyed. I tell them to clean it to my standards this time. If I come back to check again, I'm looking harder this time, and now I notice something protruding from under the bed. So I start looking under beds and in closets to see what else they've done to skirt doing it properly. The result is that it takes much longer to clean their room, and I'm scrutinizing harder each time I have to check it.
Do not be that kid when submitting a reconsideration request to Google.
What to include in the reconsideration request
When you write your reconsideration request, keep it short and to the point. No one wants to read a six-page essay about your website. When I submit a reconsideration request, it consists of a few core points:
- I accept responsibility that the site in question violated the guidelines.
- I let them know I now understand why it violated the guidelines.
- I let them know I've cleaned up the violation(s) and cite a few URLs that were violating the guidelines but have since been fixed as examples of that cleanup.
- If there were multiple types violations, I might give them a bullet point list of what types I've cleaned up with a few supporting links for each.
- I let them know I've re-familiarized myself with their current guidelines and will ensure my site follows them in the future.
- I thank them for their time in reviewing my site.
Things that should not be in your reconsideration request include:
- Denials of blame or wrongdoing
- Reasons you feel their guidelines are unfair
- Sob stories about how this has affected your traffic, income, life, etc.
- Anger displayed in any form
Once you have written your reconsideration request, you can submit it to Google for review.
#6 – Cross your fingers and wait
Once you've submitted your reconsideration request, you simply have to wait and see if Google lifts the penalty. I've seen reconsideration requests get a response in as little as a few days, but I've also seen them take several weeks.
If Google approves your reconsideration request, you'll receive a notice in your Google Search Console account that tells you that the manual action has been revoked. You'll hopefully see your rankings return soon after that.
I say hopefully because there are several instances where rankings don't bounce back. But I'd be surprised if rankings didn't bounce back fairly well when it comes to this specific manual penalty. Of course, keep in mind that other factors – such as bloggers all over the web nofollowing links en masse to remove their own manual penalty – could affect your overall ranking ability having nothing to do with your (now lifted) manual action.
If Google denies your reconsideration request, you'll also receive notification as such. If you're lucky, they'll also cite a few examples of how your site is still violating the guidelines. If not you'll simply have to go through your site again, this time scrutinizing it a little bit harder.
That said with this particular round of manual actions, Google is being pretty clear about what needs to be cleaned up. You simply have to do it.
And for the love of all things holy, once you get the manual penalty lifted, don't repeat the same mistakes. Google has not been shy about saying they get really annoyed by and are harder on repeat offenders.
If you have a question about a specific concern surrounding something you think might be seen as compensated content and how to handle it that is not covered in the post, feel free to drop it in the comments, and I can give you my opinion on it.
However, please limit your questions to this specific manual penalty (bloggers and nofollowing compensated links) as I won't be responding to general requests for manual penalty help.
I published this post about this particular penalty because I know it is affecting a lot of individual, one-(wo)man show bloggers who can't afford professional penalty recovery services – and because the causes for this manual penalty are pretty generally defined in nature.
Please note – I use affiliate links on this site. This means I might earn a commission if you click on a link and sign up for something.
Fantastic write-up Rae, thanks!
However, you didn’t mention “app links” though which is something Google specifically communicated in their 3/11 statement as something blog owners need to address.
Those links, like those to sponsor social accounts, should also be nofollowed and be an audit target as bloggers work through these penalties.
It’s also worth noting that with Easy Recipe STILL not updating their plugin in 2016 to be compliant with Google’s new Structured Data guidelines, it may be better to just replace it completely and go with something like Meal Planner Pro or Zip Recipes which have been fully updated to not show the star ratings markups without actual reviews by default.
Since, as you said, most of the bloggers affected by these may be single-owner operations, it also wouldn’t hurt to make sure they understand that they can use Google Search Operator searches like the below to better surface some of the content they “may” have forgotten to nofollow:
I would also just like to add that there was some “expert” advice earlier this week that these bloggers should NOFOLLOW all their links (which you addressed) and I think that’s HORRIBLE advice. An issue Google addressed with Jennifer Slegg over at The SEM Post yesterday.
Thanks again for the great writeup. I’ll share it in our chat with Food Blogger University on Friday.
Thanks for sharing the additional info Casey! I agree on nofollow as I mentioned in the post. Unfortunately, it’s the easy route, so a lot of bloggers will probably take it. However, I’m a big believer in doing things the right way – which doesn’t always equate to the easiest way.
I am not seeing a link to Easy Recipe’s website at all in the plug in as activated on my site. I don’t use the star ratings in the plug in. I even checked the coding and still don’t see a link. So perhaps turning off the star rating will also solve the issue without needing to upgrade. Unless I’m just missing it!
Do you use the free version or the paid version? I see the credit link in a LOT of sites using it showing “WordPress Recipe Plugin by EasyRecipe” linked to their site with the paid version of the plugin via:
<div class="ERSLinkback"><a class="ERSWRPLink" href="http://www.easyrecipeplugin.com/" title="EasyRecipe WordPress Recipe Plugin" target="_blank">Wordpress Recipe Plugin by <span class="ERSAttribution">EasyRecipe</span></a></div>
…in the source code.
It’s also shown in the screenshots they published for the free version of the plugin on WordPress. :)
Thanks for this post Rae, but I have a question. How will adding a no follow attribute to paid advertising and affiliate links affect your income and what you can/can not promote? I’m not clear but it seems like Google is harming sites not devoted to the Google Ad platform. Thanks in advance for taking time to read this.
Adding a nofollow to affiliate links has no effect on your affiliate earnings. You get paid when you produce sales and the nofollow attribute is a behind the scenes thing that doesn’t affect whether or not you’re credited with an affiliate sale. I believe Google knows enough to discount links the bigger affiliate networks – it’s the indie programs where the affiliate links are housed on the merchant’s domain that are an issue for Google.
However, I cloak all of my affiliate links, so they’re running through redirects in a blocked folder on my sites anyway. Which means they aren’t passing any link value – whether or not they include a nofollow. Best practice wise, you should always cloak and nofollow your affiliate links. The latter for Google, the former for you.
As far as standard advertising, that’s long been the dilemma in the blogging community. Google created a currency around links with their algorithm – so links that pass value in that algorithm have a higher value. So, if you don’t nofollow the link, advertisers are willing to pay more, but you could get penalized. If you do nofollow the link, you make less money, but you help defend against your site receiving a penalty for paid links. If you’re not dependent on Google traffic, then you can do what you want. But if you are dependent on Google traffic, then you’ll need to play ball using their rules to maintain said Google traffic.
All ads placed by the major ad networks – which, yes, includes AdSense, but also numerous others – run through redirects and don’t pass any SEO value. It’s the independent ads publishers place on their site that are affected by this. I agree it sucks, but it is what it is.
Thanks for that information Rae, much appreciated!
Thanks for this valuable information.
I want to make sure I understand exactly what needs to be changed with regard to affiliate ads and paid/compensated content
Note: We have a site-wide disclaimer about how we earn money through ads and sponsorships, and we also call attention to ad links and sponsored links in posts on an individual basis.
Please check out my to-do list below and let me know if I missed or misunderstood anything. Thanks!
1. Go to all sidebar ads and replace existing ad links with no-follow links (per the instructions you provided above)
2. Go to all sidebar sponsorship spots and replace existing sponsorship links with no-follow links (per the instructions you provided above)
3. Go to all sponsored content (blog posts) and change out any links to the companies that sponsored those posts just as I’ll be doing in #1 and #2 above. I do not need to replace all links in all posts, just those links that take my site visitors to the sites of advertisers or sponsors IF they advertised on or sponsored that blog posts’ content, correct?
Thanks for your help,
Yes re 1, 2 and 3. Also, if you’re looking to any other pages that might benefit the post sponsor within it (such as their Twitter or a store that sells their product), those need to be nofollowed as well.
Keep in mind too – you may end up with an email or two from unhappy folks who advertise or sponsored posts that are upset you now have nofollowed their link. It’s an unfortunate side effect, but as I said in a comment above, what makes Google happy may not always make your sponsors happy.
I have one more question – how do you do this?
“I cloak all of my affiliate links, so they’re running through redirects in a blocked folder on my sites anyway.”
I use Pretty Link Pro (affiliate) to nofollow all of my affiliate links and disallow the base folder those redirects are housed in within my robots.txt file. I used to have a tutorial on why and how I cloaked affiliate links, but it details out the process with a plugin I no longer recommend. I’ll add writing an updated version of that post to my list of to-dos. :)